Healthcare is a constant topic of conversation in Washington these days, but one aspect of the system that the public doesn’t hear nearly enough about is dental care. What was once a strength of the country has now become a glaring weakness, with dental care being inaccessible and unaffordable for millions of American citizens.
The Sad State of Dental Care
When the Obama administration rolled out the Affordable Care Act (ACA), millions of people gained health coverage who previously had none. One of the biggest positives was the emphasis on “essential benefits,” or treatment for things like mental health issues and drug abuse (which previously weren’t covered under most insurance plans).
While dental coverage is considered an “essential benefit” under the ACA for children, it’s not for adults over the age of 18. Adults have to get a separate plan. But why is this? And what does it say about the current system?
“The failure to value oral health and understand that the mouth is the gateway to the body has for too long impeded people’s ability to achieve good overall health,” Dr. Maxine Feinberg says. “This failure can negatively affect anyone, but it is particularly devastating to low-income people who lack dental coverage or who for other reasons don’t seek or receive regular care.”
When polled, just 31 percent of Americans rate the condition of their oral hygiene and health as “very good.” The percentage is even lower in lower income households, where just 15 percent of people feel “very good” about their mouth and teeth.
Poor oral care typically starts from a young age. While the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that children have their first dental visit by the age of 1, or within six months of their first tooth, one study shows that most parents don’t take their children to a teeth cleaning until at least the age of 2.
“Interestingly, the study revealed that 62% did not follow the guideline because the parents and caregivers felt the child was too young or they did not have enough teeth,” explains Bear-Glasgow Dental in Newark, Delaware. “Whereas, lack of insurance was mentioned by 12% of parents and caregivers. Most people think primary teeth, otherwise known as baby teeth, fall out eventually so what’s the big deal?”
There’s simply a lack of education on the importance of oral healthcare and the role teeth play in the health of the entire body. Inadequate health insurance and access are also highly problematic.
Improving American Dental Care
For most parents, taking themselves and their children to the dentist once or twice a year is out of the question. It simply costs too much, even with insurance coverage.
“A typical dental plan requires a 50 percent copay for complicated procedures and high-ticket items like crowns and bridges,” Wendell Potter writes for HuffPost. “Many plans have a ‘missing tooth clause,’ meaning they won’t pay for replacing a tooth if it was missing when you enrolled in the plan. And most dental plans limit coverage to just $1,500 a year. That’s hardly more than a down payment on your kid’s $6,000 braces.”
Then there’s the problem of providing dental access in remote communities where a dentist finds it unprofitable to set up shop. One option is for dentists in nearby cities to fund midlevel dental providers, also known as dental therapists, to work in these areas. Much like a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, a dental therapist can perform a number of key services in place of an actual doctor. This includes cavities, fillings, temporary crowns, and tooth extraction.
The jury is still out on what the perfect solution is, but there are options. It’s time for those in charge to make dental care a bigger healthcare priority.